We’ve known for decades that microplastics are swirling in the ocean, disrupting natural ecosystems. But now there’s evidence that these small particles are getting into the air too, and it’s making scientists worried.
According to a new study, many plastic-derived particles are small enough to float along in the atmosphere and even travel between continents, this means that it represents a profound risk to human and animal health across the planet.
The official definition of a microplastic is any plastic-derived particle measuring less than 5 mm long. Particles at the upper end of the spectrum are unlikely to remain in the air for any considerable length of time. However, smaller varieties - those below 0.01 mm - could feasibly float in the atmosphere for much longer, depending on air currents.
According to data from America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there are already thousands of tonnes of these tiny particles circulating the Earth. NOAA predict that as global development continues, the problem is only going to get worse. Computer simulations show how plastics in the atmosphere travel around the globe and how things will change as developing nations adopt Western lifestyles and production patterns.
From the air to everywhere else
The disturbing aspect of this new research is how it reveals the atmosphere as an active player in distributing microparticles around the planet. When plastics break down in so-called “hotspots” such as India, China, Europe and North America, some of them enter planetary air currents. These can whip them up for days at a time, transporting them thousands of miles to pristine locations. Eventually, they fall out of the air and settle in whatever medium they find themselves in, be it ice, water, forest or anything else.
In this way, atmospheric microparticles are contributing to plastic pollution in the oceans. Even plastics that break down well away from watercourses could eventually find their way to the sea via this mechanism.
Researchers think that microplastics remain in the atmosphere for between one hour and six and a half days. That, according to their estimates, is sufficient time for particles to cross the oceans to areas at no direct risk of plastic pollution.
Ultimately, it means that nobody is protected from this problem. Plastics generated in one corner of the planet are finding their way to the other side. And that’s a pattern which, according to NOAA researchers, could “come back to haunt us,”
How to respond
So, what can the average person do to combat this worrying development? Well, one idea is to adopt zero waste products. Instead of purchasing disposable items (such as cling film, synthetic sponges and plastic brushes) we need to shift our shopping habits.
Fortunately, you don’t need to make your own products. Clearstone offers a bunch of zero waste, zero plastic products - everything from brushes for your washing up to compostable pouches for food - that help you protect the planet. So why not make the switch today and do your bit to protect mother nature?